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The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a historical fiction published in 1850. The main character is Hester Prynne, who thinks she is a widow but unknowingly has a husband somewhere. Hester Prynne has a daughter Pearl out of wedlock and refuses to name the father. As punishment for adultery, the people forced her to wear the Scarlet letter A on her dress. But the attitude she puts on may have been the start of the fight for female emancipation. Instead of feeling down, ashamed, and dejected, Hester wears the scarlet letter with pride and dignity, raising her rejected daughter with all pride to make her responsible. Did men not commit adultery? Why target only women? These are intriguing questions that will get the reader hurrying through the pages of this classic work.
The Scarlet Letter centers on adultery, guilt, redemption, and revenge. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote the book during the Puritan era. In the book, Hester Prynne, a resident of Colonial New England, wears a scarlet A to mark her shame. This scarlet letter A is a public humiliation which someone must bear for their misdeeds in the Puritan society. Puritanism was a religious movement in the 16th and 17th centuries that sought to purify the society.
Many people accepted the movement because it was how their society worked. However, what surprises readers about this novel is the attitude of Hester Prynne even after her conviction and shame.
The Scarlet Letter opens with a long preamble about how the book came to be written. The nameless narrator was the surveyor of the customhouse in Salem, Massachusetts. In the customhouse’s attic, he discovered several documents, among them a manuscript that was bundled with a scarlet, gold-embroidered patch of cloth in the shape of an “A.” The manuscript, the work of a past surveyor, detailed events that occurred some two hundred years before the narrator’s time. When the narrator lost his customs post, he decided to write a fictional account of the events recorded in the manuscript. The Scarlet Letter is the final product.
The story begins in seventeenth-century Boston, then a Puritan settlement. A young woman, Hester Prynne, is led from the town prison with her infant daughter, Pearl, in her arms and the scarlet letter “A” on her breast. A man in the crowd tells an elderly onlooker that Hester is being punished for adultery. Hester’s husband, a scholar much older than she is, sent her ahead to America, but he never arrived in Boston. The consensus is that he has been lost at sea. While waiting for her husband, Hester has apparently had an affair, as she has given birth to a child. She will not reveal her lover’s identity, however, and the scarlet letter, along with her public shaming, is her punishment for her sin and her secrecy. On this day, Hester is led to the town scaffold and harangued by the town fathers, but she again refuses to identify her child’s father.
The elderly onlooker is Hester’s missing husband, who is now practicing medicine and calling himself Roger Chillingworth. He settles in Boston, intent on revenge. He reveals his true identity to no one but Hester, whom he has sworn to secrecy. Several years pass. Hester supports herself by working as a seamstress, and Pearl grows into a willful, impish child. Shunned by the community, they live in a small cottage on the outskirts of Boston. Community officials attempt to take Pearl away from Hester, but, with the help of Arthur Dimmesdale, a young and eloquent minister, the mother and daughter manage to stay together. Dimmesdale, however, appears to be wasting away and suffers from mysterious heart trouble, seemingly caused by psychological distress. Chillingworth attaches himself to the ailing minister and eventually moves in with him so that he can provide his patient with round-the-clock care. Chillingworth also suspects that there may be a connection between the minister’s torments and Hester’s secret, and he begins to test Dimmesdale to see what he can learn. One afternoon, while the minister sleeps, Chillingworth discovers a mark on the man’s breast (the details of which are kept from the reader), which convinces him that his suspicions are correct.
Dimmesdale’s psychological anguish deepens, and he invents new tortures for himself. In the meantime, Hester’s charitable deeds and quiet humility have earned her a reprieve from the scorn of the community. One night, when Pearl is about seven years old, she and her mother are returning home from a visit to a deathbed when they encounter Dimmesdale atop the town scaffold, trying to punish himself for his sins. Hester and Pearl join him, and the three link hands. Dimmesdale refuses Pearl’s request that he acknowledge her publicly the next day, and a meteor marks a dull red “A” in the night sky. Hester can see that the minister’s condition is worsening, and she resolves to intervene. She goes to Chillingworth and asks him to stop adding to Dimmesdale’s self-torment. Chillingworth refuses.
Hester arranges an encounter with Dimmesdale in the forest because she is aware that Chillingworth has probably guessed that she plans to reveal his identity to Dimmesdale. The former lovers decide to flee to Europe, where they can live with Pearl as a family. They will take a ship sailing from Boston in four days. Both feel a sense of release, and Hester removes her scarlet letter and lets down her hair. Pearl, playing nearby, does not recognize her mother without the letter. The day before the ship is to sail, the townspeople gather for a holiday, and Dimmesdale preaches his most eloquent sermon ever.
Meanwhile, Hester has learned that Chillingworth knows of their plan and has booked passage on the same ship. Dimmesdale, leaving the church after his sermon, sees Hester and Pearl standing before the town scaffold. He impulsively mounts the scaffold with his lover and his daughter, and confesses publicly, exposing a scarlet letter seared into the flesh of his chest. He falls dead, as Pearl kisses him.
Frustrated in his revenge, Chillingworth dies a year later. Hester and Pearl leave Boston, and no one knows what has happened to them. Many years later, Hester returns alone, still wearing the scarlet letter, to live in her old cottage and resume her charitable work. She receives occasional letters from Pearl, who has married a European aristocrat and established a family of her own. When Hester dies, she is buried next to Dimmesdale. The two share a single tombstone, which bears a scarlet “A.”
The book principally explores themes of sin and punishment, female independence, nature of evil and racism, identity and society, and others.
Sin and Punishment
A major theme in The Scarlet Letter is the theme of punishment and death. Hester Prynne wears an embroidered scarlet on her bosom for the rest of her life as a sign of adultery and sin. However, she becomes a very popular and respected person because she didn’t allow the most powerful punishment in society than to faze her. The scarlet letter was meant to excommunicate her from society, but it backfires as it ended up making her famous. The lesson is that some difficult situations in life may just be opportunities to turn around to fortunes. Instead of wearing the scarlet letter A with shame, she wore it with pride and dignity. The child she got from adultery-Pearl was a blessing and a reminder of her sin. Hester Prynne inverted all the odds against her due to her courage, pride, and efforts becoming a very popular seamstress admired by many.
Like in the days of yore, women still face lots of challenges and abuse in today’s society. The macho society that the world has become is refusing to give women their independence. Female independence is a major theme in The Scarlet Letter that teaches and seems to stress that women must fight to get this autonomy. Women should work hard and assist their families if they marry. Single mums should fend for themselves and their kids instead of living in regret. That way, society will learn to respect women. Aside from financial independence, The Scarlet Letter teaches women how to make decisions that concern their wellbeing.
The author uses Hester Prynne to show how far women can go if they make their own decisions. Ostracized, she takes care of herself and her child Pearl. Pearl was a child when she got out of wedlock. Even amid adversities and torture from society, Hester upheld her values. Instead of abandoning the child, she proudly proclaimed that the child is her happiness and a reminder of her sin. Hester knew her responsibilities for the child and proclaimed, “No one shall take her! I would die first”. Due to Hester’s independence and ability to take care of her child, people suddenly forgot that she committed adultery. Instead, she became a role model for many people. Hester was able to raise a headstrong child that could make her decisions and fend for herself. The Scarlet Letter teaches women to be strong and courageous.
The Nature of Evil and Racism
Black color has, from time immemorial, been associated with the devil, evil, and sin. Nathaniel Hawthorne, however, insists that evil is not about the color of the skin or looks. In the novel, the black man represents evil and the embodiment of sin. Characters like Arthur Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, and Mistress Hibbins were all treated as evil, mostly because of their color. Hester’s little child Pearl also became“the child of the devil” in the novel. However, The Scarlet Letter argues that pure evil arises from the close relationship between love and hate.
Racism is a severe problem in society today, causing damage to both individuals and nations. It can cause violence and increase the crime rate in the society. Where there is racism, there would be no trust or respect for one another. Without racism and discrimination, people can achieve their goals without feeling inferior.
A survey carried out in Australia on over 800 secondary school students reported that racism had huge mental and health implications for young people. Most of them had feelings of sadness, depression, anger, headaches, increased heart rate, trembling muscle tensions, and lots more. All of these can limit one’s ability to work or study.
The Scarlet Letter teaches us how to overcome racism and hate in society. If Hester accepted what the society said about her, then she wouldn’t have been able to take care of her child.
Identity and Society
Identity makes us who we are as persons. Maintaining self-identity strengthens our character. Identity allows us to have confidence and also identify our strengths. It distinguishes us from everyone else and makes humans unique from animals. The people gave Hester a scarlet letter A to put on as a way of punishing her. This became her identity, but she turned it from negative to positive. She wore it with pride and dignity, and society eventually loved her. When the Puritan group realized that the scarlet letter A turned her from an object of ridicule to someone the society adores, they wanted her to take it off.
It’s funny that Hester reacted with dismay when Chillingworth told her that the leaders want her to remove the scarlet letter. She wanted to use the negativity around the scarlet letter to create her own identity. To Hester, if she removed the scarlet letter or run away, then it means the society has power over her. She wouldn’t let others determine her faith and decide everything for her. Removing the scarlet letter A would mean she is accepting that the letter is a mark of shame.
No one can excel without having an identity. No brand or organization can excel without having a proper identity that starts with the founder’s vision. If you look at the most prominent organizations today, they all have an identity. Apple, General Electric, Microsoft, Alphabet, JP Morgan, Alibaba, and many more have an identity that others envy.
The morals of courage, independence, identity, resilience, and lots more than The Scarlet Letter seeks to portray cannot be undermined. Hester Prynne turns misfortune into an opportunity forcing her society to revise its status quo. A Scarlet letter, a punishment for having a child out of wedlock, becomes her trademark, attracting admiration even from her persecutors. Little wonder The Scarlet Letter has influenced a lot of television and movie plays, musicals, novels, and other screen productions.